Speaking In Tongues
Scribbling In Voices

FOG, SIR?(1)

An essay by Boris Misyuk

Translated by Max Nemtsov

© 1992

There is fog on the hills
resting on its belly,
Shimmering like a pearl,
trembling as a jelly.
Medusa the Jelly-Fish
attacking the city.
All hands to arms!
Kill the Gorgon for God's sake!..

Yeah, the fogs are just fabulous here in Primorye, and springs and early summers are really special. There are times when we don't see much sun for months. They say, the locals should develop gills for breathing. But the gills aren't the worst threat the fogs bring, unfortunately --
I bought half a house on a small island not far from Vladivostok, just a couple of hours' ride by ferry from downtown, and now I hide there from the city bustle and friends with bottles. There is silence there. The silence is so perfect that you hear the water drops in the washstand basin measuring the minutes of earthly time like bells. Yes, silence -- and the prohibition. It had lasted for about five years. And this spring they held the village Soviet Deputies(2) election and, well --
The island population, sixty persons, became divided into two clans, as any normal society at the crossroads would: one group was all for the good hard-working administrator who would put everything straight, no matter how he might nag and sore, the others -- for the «good guy», one of those of whom the Russians say that «when he's drunk and clever, it's even better». On this last one I should be more specific. He was a tough sixty-year-old man, blue-eyed, strong and handsome, with the working rakes of hands, equally at ease with a spade and a glass of vodka in them, with the raucous bass voice that seemed to emanate from his very guts. He could give orders without much strain -- for many years he had been the fishing team chief. He was tall, broad-shouldered, deeply rooted in the earth, as they say, and extremely popular with women. He also had a very good last name, not easily forgettable -- Zhuravel(3).
At the day of election all grown-up population, with the exception of one ninety-year-old woman Alferova, gathered in the barrack housing the village post office, cashier's office and the Soviet under the red banner. The whole island was immersed in dense fog, and the barrack looked very much like a trawler, straining to plough the sea with its heavy bottom-trawl. All chairs and benches of the administrative barrack were taken into the Soviet Room (or «hall», or «cabin», whichever you like), and the brick stove was steaming with heat. For several long hours, the better part of the day, two competing clans were tiredly turning over, heavily fighting with each other, almost like Russian soldiers and German knights in the famous Ice Battle of the 13th century. Presently, everybody got tired and quiet, taking their breaths. And in that stillness the raw bass whispered under the breath, almost inaudibly, like a wave upon the gravel, «Give your votes to me, I'll make them sell vodka to you -- » That was it! The overwhelming majority decided that Zhuravel should be the People's Deputy.
This happened in March, when the ice still blocked the ferry route, and mail and bread were delivered to the island only once a week. The 1st of May(4) was celebrated with plenty of vodka. The Deputy kept his word! But three months more passed, and the ferry service was still irregular, for one of the ferry men had once been mooring in the fog and crushed the wharf. The wharf had been bad as it was, so it should have happened a long time ago, but still -- All of us came to the Deputy and said, «Now, come on, man, go to the city, find some logs of timber, find a floating crane to make the repairs, organize it, do something for Chrissakes -- »
Zhuravel went to the city and came back gloomy as «the morning is foggy, the morning is gray-haired»(5). Here is his report in a couple of words. They gave him the finger instead of the wharf repairs. There's no timber, all of it is sold to the Japanese for hard currency. Have you got any hard currency? If you do, there will be some timber for you. The floating crane is now an independent self-financing enterprise, and the price they set for one operating hour is so big that the whole island with all its entrails doesn't cost that much. And no one can say a word against it. The Deputy went to the District Soviet, to the City Soviet and even to the City Communist Party Committee. And this «red rag» (and Zhuravel pointed at the whitish banner nailed to the village Soviet's facade, with the slogan that read «The Party is Our Helmsman» on it) ought to be taken off, he said, because the Party is the Helmsman no more, having sold the entire floor of their City Committee building to the cooperatives. And all this is no use, he said, for there is no more authority in the city authorities, you can't find any rope ends to pull and have to rush about like a stray boat in the fog, and that's about all there is about it.
Zhuravel clearly had made a fool of himself when he failed to patent his election step to the victory in the race. It seemed that it had been used by Yeltsin's competitor Zhirinovsky. He could have been a winner. In any case, on some other small island --
The economy is desperate, there's only fog in the politics, as well as in the human brains irrigated only with home-made brews and wines, moonshine and cheap vodka. But there are people who are pretty well oriented in our brothel fog, who manage to have a very good catch in our troubled and filthy waters.
One of my Russian friends from Australia (born in the Harbin emigration) came to visit me. Immediately, the prompt local nouveau-riches sniffed something in the air -- I didn't even suspect their existence in my city. Presently, my friend and I were invited to their joint venture that specialized in the rarities production, as their board chairman told us, driving us to their office in his Merc. My Writers' Union ID provoked his condescending and contemptuous smile. He said, «Writers is just ballast. Don't take it too personally, of course. But nowadays, the world belongs to the businessmen!»
We arrived in their office, some former Soviet administrative log cabin, and the JV chairman didn't even lock the doors of his Merc. «Don't worry about your bags, guys. Everything is secure here.» And indeed, I had a quick glimpse of some alert shadows in the alley: The masonic lodge of a joint venture!
On one of their inner doors there was a poster, evidently ripped from the «Ogonyok» magazine(6) -- a simple working girl pressing her finger to her tightly drawn lips: «Don't blab out!» We were met by a chesty doll-faced secretary; presumably, her professional qualities were one hundred per cent those of the poster working girl, for which alone she was paid a half grand per month. Presently, we were led into the conference room with the wallboards freshly painted green, and even further on, into their sanctum's sanctorum, a kind of private inner office for top-secret meetings and relaxation. As the combined age of both co-chairmen, Gena and Kolya, didn't exceed sixty-five years, and both were self-admitted owners of wives and «permanent girlfriends», the sanctum's sanctorum was perfectly insulated -- no windows and, like in the sauna, it was decorated with unpainted wooden boards. There was a bearskin complete with the grinning head («We have excellent taxidermists working for us!»), a carved ashen table with the marble top inlaid with semi-precious stones, hand-made Palekh bonbonnieres(7) («We have an excellent Palekh painter, graduated from the Moscow Arts College, working for us!») and embroidered towels, also hand-made, everywhere. Now and then there softly purred a stylized ancient phone, but the co-chairmen didn't bother to answer it: there was their five-hundred-roubles maiden who came in and, addressing Kolya or Gena by their names and patronymics, informed them who was calling. Meanwhile, Gena gripped my Australian friend like a vice and squeezed him for information on markets, taxes and other economic secrets of the Fifth Continent. His look was sullen, he had a crewcut of a former athlete, he sat in his armchair like a tightly wound spring, his movements were strung up. Time and again, there appeared some superman who peeked in, with his muscles bulging out of his T-shirt. A bouncer, a bodyguard, a staff racketeer? Unmistakably, a former heavy weight-lifter.
And the conversation itself: what happens if suchlike artisans and competitors come from, say, Moscow or Kiev? Gena grinned, slightly disdainful, «Oh, that's easy here. Everything they have will be bought from them almost for nothing. They might start installing a production line -- O.K., power failures or something else -- »
The sanctum's sanctorum reminded me more and more of a hidden torture chamber, where these ghouls slowly kill their helpless victims, make unimaginable carnal orgies, etc. we touched upon the topic of racket, and Kolya couldn't hide his admiration. «The guys from Odessa -- they are very good. Very strong!» He turned to Gena, «Remember Seryoga Shapovalov? He's in the West germany now and getting bigger and bigger there. He's got a high-class team!»
At last, we broke free from the sanctum's sanctorum and rode to the studio where their artists and stone-cutters worked. Admiring at a fresh marble table-top with enormous semi-precious double-headed eagle(8) inlay, my friend asked, «How much would that cost? About four or five hundred dollars?» The master was offended, «Who do you think I am -- a Sydney scavenger? This is made for the Sotheby's, five to seven thousand!»
Carelessly driving us back in his Merc, co-chairman Kolya mused, «The JV's are just a pile of crap. The future belongs to the joint-stock companies. No use emigrating from Russia. Just these days I've read in some newspaper: Don't leave the country! I think, only the fools are leaving. Now it's here where we've got a bonanza! Who needs us over there? Over there everything's been cool for quite a time, and it's much more difficult for a beginner. They couldn't even dream of that: we've got the lowest possible construction tax, only three per cent, three, just imagine that! We are even licensed to sell our rarities abroad.» I inquired about the bearskin and those bears that are still alive. Kolya assured me that he could have obtained even that permission but he's afraid of the «greens». What the hell is that -- the border guards? Oh no, it's the Green Peace; someone had already run into trouble with them and the skins «over the fence» --
The two of us talked a lot about those «tough guys» afterwards. I understood, there's quite a few of the sort in Australia too. For some reason, I remembered an old nursery-rhyme:

My profession is a ship engineer, so I enlisted to the vessel going to Australia, as the second engineer. We had two lady-passengers on board. The first woman hadn't seen her only brother for half a century, since the World War 2, and the second one was going to visit her aunt. Those ladies told us later with tears glistening in their eyes like some cold little stones encrusted there forever, that the OVIR(9) female officers ping-ponged them from one desk to another, and one of those maliciously said to her colleagues, «Why do you fuss about them so much? These women are traitors anyway -- » The fog in the brains and souls, exceptionally dense in undeveloped souls and brains --
I met my friend in his beautiful Sydney, he took me for a ride in his Holden, and at the end of that long day, when we sat at our «round» (of course) table, a wild idea came to our heads. It was almost impossible, but in the morning he applied to their Immigration authorities, and I applied to our Soviet Consulate with the request: Three days of the port call are clearly not enough for a writer to get acquainted with the country -- so wouldn't it be possible to make it a longer stay, two weeks maybe?.. well, exactly one hour before my vessel's departure, there was a visitor on board: a young long-legged Immigration officer in his nice fitting uniform. He took a stamp out of his pocket, opened my seaman's passport and stamped it with that unbelievable, much-sought «TWO WEEKS». Then he shot a quick glance at me, raised his light-brown head and for several long seconds stared at an upper corner of the captain's cabin, where the ceiling met the wall. My heart leaped. Then he turned to my passport again, suddenly crossed something in it and wrote something instead. After that he straightened, filling the entire cabin with his basketball dimensions and looming over me -- and I realized how small I was, twice as small as in reality, like those two ladies in the OVIR office. He handed me «my red-skinned proud passport»(10). I accepted it with both of my hands shaking. I saw blobs of colored light. The captain took it from me, looked into it and cried out in sudden surprise and gladness, «Tuman-s! Fog, sir! Two months!»
It seemed so unlike the captain, usually so strict and unsmiling, that I unbounded, unclenched myself and looked at the Immigration officer -- and saw his calm human eyes where the kind human smile floated clean and fogless. His eyes shone with understanding, and their expression was so simple, so clear, so Russian: What are those two weeks for a writer? Is it really enough to see the whole continent country?
Bewildered, I stared into the far upper corner of the captain's cabin, trying to find the answer in the geometric patterns of the wall and the ceiling. Where is that «all-seeing eye» of the Australian authorities, something like our own KGB, OVIR or even the Central Committee, that this young man consulted so promptly and thus sealed my fate?

1. The phrase «Fog, sir?» («Tuman-s?») in Russian sounds similar to the English phrase «Two months».
2. The fruit of «perestroyka», «democratization» and «glasnost». «The Soviet» in this case is the village assembly, and «the Deputies» function as elected representatives of the populace. Before the Perestroyka the Soviets tended to be non-active, a mere empty symbol of power.
3. A Russian for «the crane».
4. The Day of the International Workers' Solidarity -- one of the major official celebrations in the USSR.
5. A line from the old Russian love song by Ivan Turgenev.
6. «Ogonyok» («Little Light» literally) used to be one of the most influential official illustrated weeklies, a kind of Soviet «Life» magazine.
7. Palekh -- a traditional Russian school of lacquer painting on wood, named after the village in Middle Russia.
8. The heraldic symbol of Russian Tzars, now the Russian official state emblem.
9. The Russian abbreviation for Visas and Registration Bureau.
10. A line from «The Poem of a Soviet Passport» by Vladimir Mayakovsky.